The Korean-born lyric soprano has portrayed the role of Mimi 66 times since her first outing in 1987. During that period, more than a dozen different tenors have opened that door for her — including one or two she hadn't expected to see.
"Of course we rehearse, but sometimes somebody gets sick and you don't know Rodolfo until you enter. So it's, 'Oh, OK, you're my Rodolfo,'" Hong recalled in an interview at the Met last month. "Those times are scary and wonderful," she added, "because you really feel like you're meeting somebody for the first time and you can use that moment. It's very impromptu."
Now, at age 60, Hong is about to add to her total with a performance on November 14 as the young seamstress who falls in love with the poet Rodolfo only to die of consumption in the final scene. Her sad story will again play out in the richly detailed Zeffirelli production, which premiered in 1981 and has become the most performed production of any opera in Met history.
How has her approach to the role changed over the decades? "The more you live, you add a little more pepper and seasoning because you understand life," Hong said. "When you're starting out, you just sort of imagine. But as you grow older, you see people die from diseases, all this stuff happening." Hong's husband of more than 20 years died of cancer in 2008.
Her interpretation may have deepened with age, but "your voice has to stay young," she said. "If your voice is old, it doesn't quite match." The secret for keeping that youthful sound Hong traces back to the very beginning of her career. She had come to America to study at The Juilliard School at age 15 and remained there for nine years, during high school, college and postgraduate work.
"I would go to the New York City Opera and hear these phenomenal young singers, but within three years they would lose their voices," she said. "Too much singing, too much partying, too much pressure" — plus taking on roles that were too big for their voices.
Hong vowed not to go down that path, and after getting married at age 24, "I didn't have to sing to make money," she said. "My husband said I could quit whenever I wanted. I had that luxury that I didn't have to chase so desperately to succeed."
She mostly stayed close to home, living in Queens and raising three children while quietly building a reputation as one of the Met's most valuable assets. Since her debut in 1984 as Servilia in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," she's performed nearly 400 times in a wide variety of roles. Other than Mimi, her most frequent portrayals have been as the slave girl Liu in Puccini's "Turandot" and as Micaela in Bizet's "Carmen," both of which she has sung nearly three dozen times.
And this season she took on a new role, Euridice in a revival of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice." Critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times that "though there were moments of patchy tone and shaky pitch in her singing, the radiance of her voice came through."
Over the years she's turned down many offers of roles she felt would be too heavy for her voice. "The day I realized I couldn't be Aida and Tosca, I had a moment of 'Awww ...'" she said. "But the soprano is a blessed category. I had to find what voice I had and make peace with that."
One role she especially regrets wasn't right for her is Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." "Last year I said, 'I'll wait until I'm ready to retire and I have no fear of losing my voice and I'll just go and do it, I'll go blazing out,'" she said. "But no, I tried, it stressed me so much, I got sick."
Although Hong holds the mark for the most Mimis in the Zeffirelli production, she's far from the all-time Met leader. Frances Alda sang it 80 times from 1909-1929 and Lucrezia Bori sang it 72 times from 1912-1936.
Hong noted that she has no contracts after this season, but she has frequently been called in when another singer cancels and Met general manager Peter Gelb said: "We hope that these are not her final performances."
"If I don't sing anymore, I don't sing anymore," Hong said, adding a bit wistfully, "but wouldn't it be wonderful if I broke the record."